Halloween, or “All Hallows’ Evening”, began as the celebrations preceding All Hallows’ Day, the time in the Christian liturgical calendar which has been dedicated to remembering the dead. The evolution of Hallows’ Eve to Halloween is subject to debate, but at some point this Western “holiday” became secularised — and from here on, covering yourself in fake blood, carrying imitation weaponry, and sporting an expression of having recently been awoken from the dead suddenly became socially accepted norms. It may only be for a night (or two, if one is particularly dedicated), but today, Halloween is when the terrifying, the ghoulish, the horrifying, the spooky, and the creepy all come out to play. The concept of “DEADFriday” at the Ashmolean Museum, from the title alone, created the expectation that this is exactly what one would find here. While some of these were seen, others felt, after a couple of hours deep within the shadows of the Ashmolean Museum last Friday, October 30th, I emerged with a sense of amusement, but with a noticeable lack of self-induced fear.
DEADFriday was organised in collaboration with The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH), a fact which was quickly apparent in the quality of the exhibitions created for the night, such as the “Day of the Dead Display” (on “Día de los Muertos”), and the “Secrets from Beyond the Grave” (a study of bones run in conjunction with the Nuffield Department of Orthopaedics, Rheumatology and Musculoskeletal Sciences). Intending to create an atmosphere of entertainment, it was evident the Ashmolean also hoped those in attendance would leave having at least learnt something new, if not more. This was one of the advantages to the setting of DEADFriday – in being held in a museum, it allowed participants to engage in a “Halloween” experience, set against an educational backdrop.
The Ashmolean can be commended for the breadth of events on offer on Friday night. These included interactive, “hands on” workshops such as “Make Your Own Latin Headstone”, “Origami Bats Workshop”, and “The Pharaoh’s Bucket List” photo competition, as well as visual and auditory performances, including the murder mystery What Became of Harley Warren?, and Rome’s Walking Dead, a reenactment of a Roman funeral procession, (which later received a mention in the BBC). Particularly worthy of mention were the “Ghost Stories with Oxford University Dramatic Society“, and the Schola Cantorum of Oxford. The former involved actors who sat on stools around the inner levels of the Museum, staring blankly into the distance, a book in their hands, waiting until someone caught their eye, at which point, they would begin to read aloud a ghostly tale. It was a simple, but effective means by which to induce slight atmosphere of apprehension. Schola Cantorum sang a cappella versions of songs such as Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and the unity of their voices in the vast cavern of the atrium gave their sound an almost euphonious quality; in the very least, it was enough to raise the hairs on my arms. With such variety, the Ashmolean managed to ensure there was something to capture the attention of everyone who attended.
Despite this, DEADFriday did leave me feeling a little underwhelmed, if only because of the lack of “true” Halloween spirit: aside from the theme of the night, and the attire of those in attendance (there was a significant amount of fake blood present), there was little which provided “horror”, let alone a genuine thrill of fear. Given that the event was targeted a general audience, which included families (and not just adults), this may not have been entirely unexpected. However, a suggestion for the Ashmolean for next year might be to split the event into one which has a “family friendly” aspect earlier in the night, and a “properly terrifying” element later on; this way, it might better accommodate those who enjoy being petrified. Finally, while the fact DEADFriday sold out well before Friday night is indicative of its popularity, in many of the exhibits, this was very much evident. At times, it was difficult to navigate through the Museum, let alone get close enough to see the performances, or to engage with the interactive exhibitions. A system by which to better control the crowd – be it by mapping out a “route” through the Museum for people to take, or by staggering the entries even more – would certainly not go amiss, and would make for a more enjoyable experience overall.
In the end, however, it is worth remembering that not only does DEADFriday only come once a year, but there are few places during Halloween where you are given the opportunity to roam around some of the world’s most treasured artefacts while covered in blood and gore. DEADFriday, really, is an opportunity which is too much fun to miss.
For more information about upcoming Ashmolean events, please visit their website.